There’s something wonderful about walking through a wood in the company of trees. Whether enjoying the soft, green light filtering through the fresh, unfurling leaves of spring, the crowded canopy of summer, alive with the sound of a thousand things, the glowing cathedral of stained-glass autumn leaves with the wistful whisperings of their memory underfoot, or the coldly naked silhouettes of winter, woodlands are magical places, and trees hold a special place in our hearts: we’ve climbed them, played amongst them, dreamed beneath them, even hugged them – and I’m sure we’ve all simply just wondered at them.
Here, I’m taking a look at two of the longest-living and most iconic trees of our islands - the mighty oak and the venerable yew, both of which feature large in our collective mythologies, and in particular, I’ll be shining a light on the dark and mysterious tales surrounding some notable trees here in North Wales.
OAK – THE GUARDIAN
Known as the King of Trees, the oak provides food and shelter for a greater variety of wildlife than any other tree species in Britain. Symbolising wisdom, strength and steadfastness, oaks have long been regarded as guardians and protectors, and were believed by the Druids to be portals into the spirit world, along with the ash and the thorn. This trinity of trees was believed to be inhabited by guardian spirits - touching wood for luck is rooted in the age-old custom of touching a tree to ask for the favour and divine blessing of the spirit dweller within. The name ‘Druid’ possibly derives from the Proto-Celtic “deru weid”, meaning “knowledge of the oak”.
Old country lore also attributed oaks with great healing powers – in some places their curative power was thought so great that it was enough to simply walk around an oak tree, wishing one’s illness or ailment to be carried off by the first bird to alight on its branches - and in Wales, rubbing an oak tree with the palm of the left hand on Midsummer’s Day was believed to keep you healthy all year! Toothache could be cured by driving a nail into the trunk, and a further attribute of the oak was that carrying an acorn in your pocket was believed to prevent ageing (I’m sensing a new business opportunity here!). Chirk, in North Wales, boasts two of the oldest and most important oaks in Wales, and indeed, the UK, and although one has unfortunately fallen, their tales are intriguing and fascinating…
THE OAK AT THE GATE OF THE DEAD
One of Britain’s oldest oaks can be found on Offa’s Dyke and goes by the magnificent name of ‘The Oak at the Gate of the Dead’, a tree believed to be over 1,000 years old, and so-named because of the nearby burial of the dead from the 1165 Battle of Crogen. The area was commonly known up until the 19th century as Adwy'r Beddau (The Pass of the Graves), and according to one account, some of the graves could still be seen as late as 1697, with land on either side of the dyke known as Tir y Beddau (Land of the Graves).
The battle took place in the Ceiriog Valley, near Chirk, between the forces of Henry II of England and an alliance of Welsh princes, led by Owain Gwynedd. Henry brought a massive army to Oswestry, while the Welsh army gathered in Corwen, and the two sides eventually clashed in battle on the Dyke. Ultimately, the English were driven back, but not without bloody losses on both sides.
The tree can be found in the Ceiriog Valley, around 300 metres from Chirk Castle. It is the younger cousin of the famous Pontfadog Oak (see below) and was a finalist in the 2014 European Tree of the Year awards, the first Welsh tree to be entered. A beloved local landmark, this tree was even one of the first in the world to have its own Facebook page!
THE PONTFADOG OAK
Once known as Wales’ national tree, and estimated to have been around 1200 - 1600 years old, this wonderful old tree was blown down in the early hours of 18th April 2013 by fierce gales which swept across the country – until then, it was believed to have been the oldest and largest oak in the UK, with a girth of 16m (53ft). The hollow trunk was of such a size it was said that 6 people once sat around a table inside it, and a 19th century story tells of a bull, which had been missing for two days, eventually being found safe and well within the tree!
It’s amazing to think that this tree was already ancient when Owain Gwynedd rallied his troops to it before going on to defeat Henry II at the Battle of Crogen in 1165.
The loss of such a great icon of the countryside was understandably met with great sadness and consternation, especially from the locals, for whom this tree had been a constant and reassuring presence. However, scions (cuttings) have been taken from the ancient tree, and it is hoped that a clone can be successfully planted in the future.
YEW – THE SENTINEL
Often associated with grave-yards, yew trees are exceptionally long-lived, and apparently aren’t considered ancient until they’ve lived for around 900 years (in comparison to 400 for an oak)! Such a long life span means that many have been present at important dates in our history: for instance, the Magna Carta was signed and sealed beneath a yew tree; that same tree is also said to have been used by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as a meeting place for their trysts.
The Druids revered the yew for its association with death and rebirth: ‘that darkness is the matrix from which light springs forth, and that out of death, life arises’, and it was later taken up by Christians who regarded it as a natural emblem of everlasting life because of the tree’s amazing ability to regenerate itself.
North Wales is home to many yew trees, but here we have two with extraordinary tales to tell!
THE LLANGERNYW YEW
Believed to be around 4000 years old, this yew stands in the grounds of St. Dygain’s Church, in the County Borough of Conwy. One of the world’s oldest trees and probably the oldest living thing in Wales, it was planted sometime in the prehistoric Bronze Age, and is still growing!
As old and beautiful as this tree may be, it is also associated with a chilling legend, that of the Angelystor, or ‘Recording Angel’.
Each year on 31st July and again at Hallowe'en, the Angelystor is said to appear in the medieval church to solemnly announce the names of those parish members who will shortly die.
Legend tells how, one Hallowe'en, local tailor, Siôn ap Robert, laughingly ridiculed the idea of the existence of the Angelystor while drinking in a local pub.
To take him down a peg or two, locals dared him to go to the church there and then. With a certain amount of bluster, off he went, determined to make a mockery of the tale.
On arriving at the church however, he could hear a deep voice from within, and on getting closer, he heard his own name being recited! Coldly and suddenly, his bravado evaporated. "Hold, hold!" he cried. "I am not yet ready!”, but to no avail: he died later that year.
Many villagers today still believe in the existence of the Angelystor – would you go and test the tale yourself, even after a few drinks at the pub?! On a happier note, in recognition of its place in the nation’s heritage, the Llangernyw Yew was designated as one of ‘50 Great British Trees’ to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1977.
THE PULPIT YEW
Believed to be around 1500 years old, this ancient yew can be found in the churchyard of St James’ Parish Church, in Nantglyn, Denbighshire. Amazingly, it was converted, possibly in the 18th century, into an outdoor pulpit with the addition of local Welsh slate steps leading up to a podium from which to preach. Many sermons have been preached from here, even, it is said, by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.
Following nominations from the public, it was shortlisted by the Woodland Trust for their ‘Tree of the Year’ competition in 2017, but it sadly lost out to The Hollow Tree in Port Talbot, which went on the represent the UK in the 2018 European Tree of the Year.
There are many more remarkable yew trees across North Wales; some (possibly dating back as far as the Tudors), can be found clinging to the limestone cliffs in Llandudno - and further afield, in Nevern, Dyfed, the famous yew trees there bleed a red sap every year.
BACK TO OUR ROOTS
The myths, legends and stories recounted here have been chosen to give just a glimpse of the extraordinary tales which surround us every day, hiding just out of sight. However, if you are prepared to take a closer look, the secrets will reveal themselves, or at least, part of themselves, and if you listen, ancient tales can still be heard, whispering to us from dark corners.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of the beautiful and fascinating trees of Wales, and that like me, you’ve been caught up in the threads of the folklore wrapped around their roots and branches.
JOIN IN! CELEBRATING TREES IN YOUR AREA
National Tree Week (24th November – 2nd December)
This a great chance for communities to do something positive for the trees in their local area. Each year, around 200 schools and community groups support the initiative by setting up fun, worthwhile and accessible events. Up to a quarter of a million people take part, getting their hands dirty, having fun, and planting around a million trees! For more information:
Tree Dressing Day (first weekend in December)
Organised by Common Ground - Tree Dressing Day is designed to encourage people and communities to get together to celebrate the trees within their local area. It aims to provide education and highlight the responsibility of looking after our trees.